As writer and photographer Terra Fondriest notes in this stunningly beautiful photo essay over at The Bitter Southerner, her family is among the newest on their dirt road, having only lived in rural Arkansas for 11 years. In a series of intimate portraits called The Ozark Life project, she documents her neighbors and the bounty they share and preserve in land, family, livestock, hard work, and tradition.
This Ozark Life project is a lot of things for me: a way to get to know the people around us, a way to record this time and place from my perspective for the history books, and a way to pursue a personal challenge. But, perhaps the reason that motivates me the most is connecting the Ozark culture to the life I used to live in the Chicago suburbs. By seeing moments that are totally normal in the Ozarks, moments that make me smile, and realizing how quirky those would look to a person living outside this area, I can relate our mountain world to other people.
Often these are snippets in my own family’s everyday life, but lately I am spending time photographing others in my community. I am drawn to documenting people who work using their hands and ingenuity to make a living. Those who are following their passion and those who are making a living off of the land here. I love spending time with other families similar to my own, who are navigating life here, each with its own twist.
I am still the same introverted girl who grew up in the suburbs. Getting to know new people makes me more nervous photographing for this project. It’s a challenge that is daunting on most days, but the camaraderie built by pushing through that with my subjects yields the intimacy I strive for in my storytelling. Some of the folks I photograph are friends and neighbors, but others are people I meet through circumstance, whose everyday story I find interesting and a good piece for my Ozark Life story quilt. But I approach them. I might talk to them right away about my project, or I might let it simmer a bit and get to know them over days, months, even years before I bring up my project and my request to photograph them.
Time moves, everyone in their own rhythms and situations, yet it’s a cadence we all relate to. The difference between the Ozarks and the suburbs where I grew up are the ties people have to the land, which grow deeper with every generation. Will Norton can point to the soil under his feet and say his granddad’s dad farmed the same soil where he now raises both cattle and his family. There’s a respect and connection to these hills that’s hard to put into words; it’s almost like a heartbeat that the land infuses in you.